As in other countries, feminism in the United Kingdom seeks to establish political, social, and economic equality for women. The history of feminism in Britain dates to the very beginnings of feminism itself, as many of the earliest feminist writers and activists—such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Barbara Bodichon, and Lydia Becker—were British.

19th century

Main article: History of women in the United Kingdom § 19th century

Ann Thornton Going Aloft, c. 1835
Ann Thornton Going Aloft, c. 1835

The advent of the reformist age during the 19th century meant that those invisible minorities or marginalised majorities were to find a catalyst and a microcosm in such new tendencies of reform. Robert Owen, while asking for "social reorganisation", was laying down the basis of a new reformational background. One of those movements that took advantage of such new spirit was the feminist movement. The stereotype of the Victorian gentle lady became unacceptable and even intolerable. The first organised movement for British women's suffrage was the Langham Place Circle of the 1850s, led by Barbara Bodichon (née Leigh-Smith) and Bessie Rayner Parkes. They also campaigned for improved female rights in the law, employment, education, and marriage.

Property owning women and widows had been allowed to vote in some local elections, but that ended in 1835. The Chartist Movement of 1838 to 1857 was a large-scale demand for suffrage—however it only gave suffrage to men over 21. In 1851 the Sheffield Female Political Association was founded and submitted an unsuccessful petition calling for women's suffrage to the House of Lords. This probably inspired British feminist Harriet Taylor Mill to write the pro-women's-suffrage The Enfranchisement of Women (1851).[1][2][3] On 7 June 1866 a petition from 1,499 women calling for women's suffrage was presented to the Parliament, but it also did not succeed.[4]

Upper-class women could exert a little backstage political influence in high society. However, in divorce cases, rich women lost control of their children.


Ambitious middle-class women faced enormous challenges when they proposed entering suitable careers, such as nursing, teaching, law, and medicine, and the loftier their ambition, the greater the challenge. Physicians barred admission to the medical profession; there were a few opportunities for women lawyers, but none as clerics.[5] White collar business opportunities outside family-owned shops were few until clerical positions opened in the 20th century. Florence Nightingale demonstrated the necessity of professional nursing and warfare, and set up an educational system that tracked women into that field in the second half of the nineteenth century. Teaching was not quite as easy to break into, but the low salaries were less of the barrier to the single woman than to the married man. By the late 1860s a number of schools were preparing women for careers as governesses or teachers. The census reported in 1851 that 70,000 women in England and Wales were teachers, compared to the 170,000 who comprised three-fourths of all teachers in 1901.[6][7] The great majority came from lower middle class origins.[8] The National Union of Women Teachers (NUWT) originated in the early 20th century inside the male-controlled National Union of Teachers (NUT). It demanded equal pay with male teachers, and eventually broke away.[9] Oxford and Cambridge minimized the role of women, allowing small all-female colleges to operate. However the new redbrick universities and the other major cities were open to women.[10]

Medicine was the greatest challenge, with the most systematic resistance by the physicians, and the fewest women breaking through. One route to entry was to go to the United States where there were suitable schools for women as early as 1850. Britain was one of the last countries to train women physicians, so 80 to 90% of the British women came to America for their medical degrees. Edinburgh University admitted a few women in 1869, then reversed itself in 1873, leaving a strong negative reaction among British medical educators. The first separate school for women physicians opened in London in 1874 to a handful of students. Scotland was more open. Coeducation had to wait until the World War.[11]

By the end of the nineteenth century women had secured equality of status in most spheres – except of course for the vote and the holding of office.

Child custody

Before 1839 after divorce rich women lost control of their children as those children would continue in the family unit with the father, as head of the household, and who continued to be responsible for them. Caroline Norton was one such woman; her personal tragedy where she was denied access to her three sons after a divorce led her to a life of intense campaigning which successfully led to the passing of the Custody of Infants Act 1839 and introduced the Tender years doctrine for child custody arrangement.[12][13][14][15] The Act gave women, for the first time, a right to their children and gave some discretion to the judge in child custody cases. Under the doctrine the Act also established a presumption of maternal custody for children under the age of seven years maintaining the responsibility for financial support to the father.[12] In 1873 due to additional pressure from women, the Parliament extended the presumption of maternal custody until a child reached sixteen.[16][17] The doctrine spread in many states of the world because of the British Empire.[14]


Traditionally, poor people used desertion, and (for poor men) even the practice of selling wives in the market, as a substitute for divorce.[18] In Britain before 1857 wives were under the economic and legal control of their husbands, and divorce was almost impossible. It required a very expensive private act of Parliament costing perhaps £200, of the sort only the richest could possibly afford. It was very difficult to secure divorce on the grounds of adultery, desertion, or cruelty. The first key legislative victory came with the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857. It passed over the strenuous opposition of the highly traditional Church of England. The new law made divorce a civil affair of the courts, rather than a Church matter, with a new civil court in London handling all cases. The process was still quite expensive, at about £40, but now became feasible for the middle class. A woman who obtained a judicial separation took the status of a feme sole, with full control of her own civil rights. Additional amendments came in 1878, which allowed for separations handled by local justices of the peace. The Church of England blocked further reforms until the final breakthrough came with the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973.[19][20]


Main article: Prostitution in the United Kingdom

Bullough argues that prostitution in 18th-century Britain was a convenience to men of all social statuses, and economic necessity for many poor women, and was tolerated by society. The evangelical movement of the nineteenth century denounced the prostitutes and their clients as sinners, and denounced society for tolerating it.[21] Prostitution, according to the values of the Victorian middle-class, was a horrible evil, for the young women, for the men, and for all of society. Parliament in the 1860s in the Contagious Diseases Acts ("CD") adopted the French system of licensed prostitution. The "regulationist policy" was to isolate, segregate, and control prostitution. The main goal was to protect working men, soldiers and sailors near ports and army bases from catching venereal disease. Young women officially became prostitutes and were trapped for life in the system. After a nationwide crusade led by Josephine Butler and the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, Parliament repealed the acts in 1886 and ended legalised prostitution. Butler became a sort of saviour to the girls she helped free. The age of consent for young women was raised from 12 to 16, undercutting the supply of young prostitutes who were in highest demand. The new moral code meant that respectable men dared not be caught.[22][23][24][25]

Protection for rich and poor women

A series of four laws each called the Married Women's Property Act passed Parliament from 1870 to 1893 that effectively removed the restrictions that kept wealthy married women from controlling their own property. They now had practically equal status with their husbands, and a status superior to women anywhere else in Europe.[26][27][28] Working class women were protected by a series of laws passed on the assumption that they (like children) did not have full bargaining power and needed protection by the government.[29] The Act did receive a great deal of criticism as many believed that "household harmony could only be achieved by the total subordination of women women to their husband".[30]


The early 20th century, the Edwardian era, saw a loosening of Victorian rigidity and complacency: women had more employment opportunities and were more active. Many served worldwide in the British Empire or in Protestant missionary societies.

The charismatic and dictatorial Pankhursts formed the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903. As Emmeline Pankhurst put it, they viewed votes for women no longer as "a right, but as a desperate necessity".[31] Women had the vote in Australia, New Zealand and some of the American states. While WSPU was the most visible suffrage group, it was only one of many, such as the Women's Freedom League and the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) led by Millicent Garrett Fawcett.

In 1906, the Daily Mail first coined the term "suffragettes" as a form of ridicule, but the term was quickly embraced in Britain by women who used militant tactics in the cause of women's suffrage. The term became visible in distinctive green, purple, and white emblems, and the Artists' Suffrage League's dramatic graphics. Feminists learned to exploit photography and the media, and left a vivid visual record including images such as the 1914 photograph of Emmeline.[32] Violence separated the moderates from the radicals led by the Pankhursts. The radicals themselves split; Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst expelled Sylvia Pankhurst for insubordination and she formed her own group that was left-wing and oriented to broader issues affecting working class women.[33] It was first called the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS), but over the years evolved politically and changed its name accordingly, first to the Women's Suffrage Federation and then to the Workers' Socialist Federation.

Cover of WSPU's The Suffragette, 25 April 1913 (after Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People, 1830)
Cover of WSPU's The Suffragette, 25 April 1913 (after Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People, 1830)

The radical protests slowly became more violent, and included heckling, banging on doors, smashing shop windows, and arson. Emily Davison, a WSPU member, unexpectedly ran onto the track during the 1913 Epsom Derby and died under the King's horse. These tactics produced mixed results of sympathy and alienation.[citation needed] As many protesters were imprisoned and went on hunger-strike, the Liberal government was left with an embarrassing situation. From these political actions, the suffragists successfully created publicity around their institutional discrimination and sexism. Historians generally argue that the first stage of the militant suffragette movement under the Pankhursts in 1906 had a dramatic mobilizing effect on the suffrage movement. Women were thrilled and supportive of revolting in the streets; the membership of the militant WSPU and the older NUWSS overlapped and was mutually supportive. However a system of publicity, Ensor argues, had to continue to escalate to maintain its high visibility in the media. The hunger strikes and force-feeding did that. However the Pankhursts refused any advice and escalated their tactics. They turned to systematic disruption of Liberal Party meetings as well as physical violence in terms of damaging public buildings and arson. This went too far, as the overwhelming majority of suffragists pulled back and refused to follow because they could no longer defend the tactics. Shey increasingly repudiated the suffragettes as an obstacle to achieving suffrage, saying the militant suffragettes were now aiding the antis, and many historians agree. Searle says the methods of the suffragettes did succeed in damaging the Liberal party but failed to advance the cause of woman suffrage. When the Pankhursts decided to stop the militancy at the start of the war, and enthusiastically support the war effort, the movement split and their leadership role ended. Suffrage did come four years later, but the feminist movement in Britain permanently abandoned the militant tactics that had made the suffragettes famous.[34][35]

The First World War advanced the feminist cause, as women's sacrifices and paid employment were much appreciated. Prime Minister David Lloyd George was clear about how important the women were:

It would have been utterly impossible for us to have waged a successful war had it not been for the skill and ardour, enthusiasm and industry which the women of this country have thrown into the war.[36]

The militant suffragette movement was suspended during the war and never resumed. British society credited the new patriotic roles women played as earning them the vote in 1918.[37] However, British historians no longer emphasize the granting of woman suffrage as a reward for women's participation in war work. Pugh (1974) argues that enfranchising soldiers primarily and women secondarily was decided by senior politicians in 1916. In the absence of major women's groups demanding for equal suffrage, the government's conference recommended limited, age-restricted women's suffrage. The suffragettes had been weakened, Pugh argues, by repeated failures before 1914 and by the disorganising effects of war mobilization; therefore they quietly accepted these restrictions, which were approved in 1918 by a majority of the War Ministry and each political party in Parliament.[38] More generally, Searle (2004) argues that the British debate was essentially over by the 1890s, and that granting the suffrage in 1918 was mostly a byproduct of giving the vote to male soldiers. Women in Britain finally achieved suffrage on the same terms as men in 1928.[39]

The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 received Royal Assent on 23 December 1919.[40] The basic purpose of the act was, as stated in its long title, "... to amend the Law with respect to disqualification on account of sex", which it achieved in four short sections and one schedule. Its broad aim was achieved by section 1, which stated that:

A person shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage from the exercise of any public function, or from being appointed to or holding any civil or judicial office or post, or from entering or assuming or carrying on any civil profession or vocation, or for admission to any incorporated society (whether incorporated by Royal Charter or otherwise), [and a person shall not be exempted by sex or marriage from the liability to serve as a juror]…[41]

The Crown was given the power to regulate the admission of women to the civil service by Orders in Council, and judges were permitted to control the gender composition of juries. By section 2, women were to be admitted as solicitors after serving three years only if they possessed a University degree which would have qualified them if male, or if they had fulfilled all the requirements of a degree at a University which did not, at the time, admit women to degrees. By section 3, no statute or charter of a University was to preclude University authorities from regulating the admission of women to membership or degrees. By section 4, any orders in council, royal charters, or statutory provisions which were inconsistent with this Act were to cease to have effect.[40]

At the same time there was a relaxing of clothing restrictions on women; however, by 1920 there was negative talk about young women called "flappers" flaunting their sexuality.[42]

The BBC had a marriage bar between 1932 and 1944, although it was a partial ban and was not fully enforced due to the BBC's ambivalent views on the policy.[43]

Lloyds Bank had a marriage bar that also meant that female employees were classified as supplementary staff, rather than permanent. The bank abolished its marriage bar in 1949.[44]

Electoral reform

The United Kingdom's Representation of the People Act 1918[45] gave near-universal suffrage to men, and suffrage to women over 30. The Representation of the People Act 1928 extended equal suffrage to both men and women. It also shifted the socioeconomic makeup of the electorate towards the working class, favouring the Labour Party, which was more sympathetic to women's issues.[46] The 1918 election gave Labour the most seats in the house to date. The electoral reforms also allowed women to run for Parliament. Specifically, the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 gave women over 21 the right to stand for election as an MP. Christabel Pankhurst narrowly failed to win a seat in 1918, but in 1919 and 1920, both Lady Astor and Margaret Wintringham won seats for the Conservatives and Liberals respectively by succeeding their husband's seats. Labour swept to power in 1924. Constance Markievicz (Sinn Féin) was the first woman elected in Ireland in 1918, but as an Irish nationalist, refused to take her seat. Astor's proposal to form a women's party in 1929 was unsuccessful. Women gained considerable electoral experience over the next few years as a series of minority governments ensured almost annual elections, but there were 12 women in Parliament by 1940. Close affiliation with Labour also proved to be a problem for the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (NUSEC), which had little support in the Conservative party. However, their persistence with Conservative Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin was rewarded with the passage of the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928.[47]

Social reform

The political change did not immediately change social circumstances. With the economic recession, women were the most vulnerable sector of the workforce. Some women who held jobs prior to the war were obliged to forfeit them to returning soldiers, and others were excessed. With limited franchise, the UK National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) pivoted into a new organisation, the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (NUSEC),[48] which still advocated for equality in franchise, but extended its scope to examine equality in social and economic areas. Legislative reform was sought for discriminatory laws (e.g., family law and prostitution) and over the differences between equality and equity, the accommodations that would allow women to overcome barriers to fulfillment (known in later years as the "equality vs. difference conundrum").[49] Eleanor Rathbone, who became an MP in 1929, succeeded Millicent Garrett as president of NUSEC in 1919. She expressed the critical need for consideration of difference in gender relationships as "what women need to fulfill the potentialities of their own natures".[50] The 1924 Labour government's social reforms created a formal split, as a splinter group of strict egalitarians formed the Open Door Council in May 1926.[51] This eventually became an international movement, and continued until 1965. Other important social legislation of this period included the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 (which opened professions to women), and the Matrimonial Causes Act 1923. In 1932, NUSEC separated advocacy from education, and continued the former activities as the National Council for Equal Citizenship and the latter as the Townswomen's Guild. The council continued until the end of the Second World War.[52]

In 1921, Margaret Mackworth (Lady Rhondda) founded the Six Point Group,[53] which included Rebecca West. As a political lobby group it aimed at political, occupational, moral, social, economic and legal equality. Thus it was ideologically allied with the Open Door Council, rather than National Council. It also lobbied at an international level, such as the League of Nations, and continued its work till 1983. In retrospect both ideological groups were influential in advancing women's rights in their own way. Despite women being admitted to the House of Commons from 1918, Mackworth, a Viscountess in her own right, spent a lifetime fighting to take her seat in the House of Lords against bitter opposition, a battle which only achieved its goal in the year of her death (1958). This revealed the weaknesses of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act. Mackworth also founded Time and Tide which became the group's journal, and to which West, Virginia Woolf, Rose Macaulay and many others contributed. A number of other women's periodicals also appeared in the 1920s, including Woman and Home, and Good Housekeeping, but whose content reflect very different aspirations. In 1925 Rebecca West wrote in Time and Tide something that reflected not only the movement's need to redefine itself post suffrage, but a continual need for re-examination of goals. "When those of our army whose voices are inclined to coolly tell us that the day of sex-antagonism is over and henceforth we have only to advance hand in hand with the male, I do not believe it."[54]

Reproductive rights

In 1803 the United Kingdom enacted Lord Ellenborough's Act, making abortion after quickening a capital crime, and providing lesser penalties for the felony of abortion before quickening.[55][56]

Annie Besant was tried in 1877 for publishing Charles Knowlton's Fruits of Philosophy,[57] a work on family planning, under the Obscene Publications Act 1857.[58][59] Knowlton had previously been convicted in the United States. She and her colleague Charles Bradlaugh were convicted but acquitted on appeal, the subsequent publicity resulting in a decline in the birth rate.[60][61] Not discouraged in the slightest, Besant followed this with The Law of Population.[62]

In 1929 the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 was enacted; it created the offence of child destruction. It also amended the law so that an abortion carried out in good faith, for the sole purpose of preserving the life of the mother, would not be an offence.

In 1938 Dr. Aleck Bourne aborted the pregnancy of a young girl who had been raped by soldiers. Bourne was acquitted after turning himself in to authorities.

1950s – 21st century

1950s Britain is regarded as a bleak period for feminism. In the aftermath of World War II, a new emphasis was placed on companionate marriage and the nuclear family as a foundation of the new welfare state.[63][64]

In 1951, the proportion of adult women who were (or had been) married was 75%; more specifically, 84.8% of women between the ages of 45 and 49 were married.[65] At that time: “marriage was more popular than ever before.”[66] In 1953, a popular book of advice for women states: “A happy marriage may be seen, not as a holy state or something to which a few may luckily attain, but rather as the best course, the simplest, and the easiest way of life for us all”.[67]

While at the end of the war, childcare facilities were closed and assistance for working women became limited, the social reforms implemented by the new welfare state included family allowances meant to subsidize families, that is, to support women in the “capacity as wife and mother.”[64] Sue Bruley argues that “the progressive vision of the New Britain of 1945 was flawed by a fundamentally conservative view of women”.[66]

Women's commitment to companionate marriage was encouraged by the popular media: films, radio and popular women's magazines. In the 1950s, women's magazines had considerable influence on forming opinion in all walks of life, including the attitude to women's employment.

Nevertheless, 1950s Britain saw several strides towards the parity of women, such as equal pay required by law for women teachers (1952) and for women in the civil service (1954), thanks to activists like Edith Summerskill, who fought for women's causes both in parliament and in the traditional non-party pressure groups throughout the 1950s.[68] Barbara Caine argues: “Ironically here, as with the vote, success was sometimes the worst enemy of organised feminism, as the achievement of each goal brought to an end the campaign which had been organised around it, leaving nothing in its place.”[69]

The Life Peerages Act 1958 allowed for the creation of female peers entitled to sit in the House of Lords. The first such women peers took their seats on 21 October 1958.[70]

Feminist writers of that period, such as Alva Myrdal and Viola Klein, started to allow for the possibility that women should be able to combine home with outside employment. 1950s’ form of feminism is often derogatorily termed “welfare feminism.”[71] Indeed, many activists went to great length to stress that their position was that of ‘reasonable modern feminism,’ which accepted sexual diversity, and sought to establish what women's social contribution was rather than emphasizing equality or the similarity of the sexes. Feminism in 1950s England was strongly connected to social responsibility and involved the well-being of society as a whole. This often came at the cost of the liberation and personal fulfillment of self-declared feminists. Even those women who regarded themselves as feminists strongly endorsed prevailing ideas about the primacy of children's needs, as advocated, for example, by John Bowlby the head of the Children's Department at the Tavistock Clinic, who published extensively throughout the 1950s and by Donald Winnicott who promoted through radio broadcasts and in the press the idea of the home as a private emotional world in which mother and child are bound to each other and in which the mother has control and finds freedom to fulfill herself.[72]

The birth control pill was introduced in the UK on the National Health Service in 1961 for married women only, and made available for all women with the NHS from 1967.[73]

The Peerage Act 1963 granted suo jure hereditary women peers (other than those in the Peerage of Ireland) the right to sit in the House of Lords.

The Abortion Act 1967 is an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom legalising abortions by registered practitioners, and regulating the tax-paid provision of such medical practices through the National Health Service. The Act made abortion legal in all of Great Britain (but not Northern Ireland) up to 28 weeks' gestation. In 1990, the law was amended by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act so that abortion was no longer legal after 24 weeks, except in cases where it was necessary to save the life of the woman, there was evidence of extreme fetal abnormality, or there was a grave risk of physical or mental injury to the woman. Furthermore, all abortion remains officially restricted to cases of maternal life, mental health, health, rape, fetal defects, and/or socioeconomic factors.

The Ford sewing machinists strike of 1968, led by Rose Boland, Eileen Pullen, Vera Sime, Gwen Davis, and Sheila Douglass, began because women sewing machinists, as part of a regrading exercise, were informed that their jobs were graded in Category B (less skilled production jobs), instead of Category C (more skilled production jobs), and that they would be paid 15% less than the full B rate received by men.[74][75][76] At the time, it was common practice for companies to pay women less than men, irrespective of the skills involved.[77] Following the intervention of Barbara Castle, the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity in Harold Wilson's government, the strike ended three weeks after it began, as a result of a deal that immediately increased their rate of pay to 8% below that of men, rising to the full category B rate the following year. A court of inquiry (under the Industrial Courts Act 1919) was also set up to consider their regrading, although this failed to find in their favour.[78] The women were only regraded into Category C following a further six-week strike in 1984 (source BBC documentary broadcast 9 March 2013).[79] The 1968 strike was a trigger cause of the passing of the Equal Pay Act 1970. As well, inspired by the 1968 strike, women trades unionists founded the National Joint Action Campaign Committee for Women's Equal Rights (NJACCWER), which held an equal pay demonstration attended by 1,000 people in Trafalgar Square on 18 May 1969.[80]

The Equal Pay Act 1970 is an Act of the United Kingdom Parliament from 1970 which prohibits any less favourable treatment between women and men in terms of pay and conditions of employment. The Act has now been mostly superseded by Part 5, chapter 3, of the Equality Act 2010.

The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 (c. 65) was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom which protected people from discrimination on the grounds of sex or marital status. The Act concerned employment, training, education, harassment, the provision of goods and services, and the disposal of premises. The Gender Recognition Act 2004 and The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 (Amendment) Regulations 2008 amended parts of this Act to apply to transsexual people. Other amendments were introduced by the Sex Discrimination Act 1986, the Employment Act 1989, the Equality Act 2006, and other legislation such as rulings by the European Court of Justice. The Act did not apply in Northern Ireland, however The Sex Discrimination Gender Reassignment Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1999 does. The Act was repealed in full by the Equality Act 2010.

The United Kingdom signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 1981 and ratified it in 1986.[81]

Female genital mutilation was outlawed in the UK by the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985, which made it an offence to perform FGM on children or adults.[82]

When Margaret Thatcher (who had been the first female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990) died the then Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband paid tribute to her as "the first woman Prime Minister".[83][84] However Thatcher received scant credit from feminists for breaking the ultimate glass ceiling, because she herself avoided feminism, and expressed an intensely masculine style.[85][86]

R v R [1991] UKHL 12[a] is a court judgment delivered in 1991, in which the House of Lords determined that under English criminal law it is possible for a husband to rape his wife.


In a 2015 evaluation from Lord David Willetts he had discovered and stated that in 2013, the percentage of undergraduate students in the UK were 54 percent females and 46 percent were male undergrads. Whereas in the 1960s only 25 percent of full-time students in the United Kingdom were females. The increase of females going to school and contributing in the educational system can be linked to the women’s suffrage movements that aimed to encourage women to enroll in school for higher education.[87] In the 1960s in the United Kingdom, women were usually the minority and a rarity when it came to the higher education system.

21st century

The Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002 (c.2) is an Act of Parliament of the United Kingdom. The purpose of the Act was to exempt the selection of candidates in parliamentary elections from the provisions in the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Sex Discrimination (Northern Ireland) Order 1976 that outlaw sexual discrimination. The purposes of the Act allow political parties to select candidates based on gender in an effort to increase representation of women in British politics.

The Act applies to elections to:

The Act does not apply to selection of candidates for the Mayor of London elections. Only political parties registered under Part 2 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 are covered by the Act.

The Act was originally scheduled to run until the end of 2015. On 6 March 2008, Minister for Women Harriet Harman announced that the exemption would be extended until 2030 under the Equality Act 2010.[88][89]

The Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 and the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation (Scotland) Act 2005 made it an offence to arrange FGM outside the country for British citizens or permanent residents, whether or not it is lawful in the country to which the girl is taken.[90][91][92][93][94][95] The first prosecutions took place in 2015 against a doctor for performing FGM and another man for aiding and abetting; both were found not guilty.[96]

The Equality Act 2006 (c 3) is an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, a precursor to the Equality Act 2010, which combines all of the equality enactments within Great Britain and provides comparable protections across all equality strands. Those explicitly mentioned by the Equality Act 2006 include gender; disability; age; proposed, commenced or completed gender reassignment; race; religion or belief and sexual orientation. Among other things, it created a public duty to promote equality on the ground of gender (The Equality Act 2006, section 84, inserting section 76A of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, now found in section 1 of the Equality Act 2010.)

Since 2007, Harriet Harman has been Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, the UK's current opposition party. Traditionally, being Deputy Leader has ensured the cabinet role of Deputy Prime Minister. However, Gordon Brown announced that he would not have a Deputy Prime Minister, much to the consternation of feminists,[97] particularly with suggestions that privately Brown considered Jack Straw to be de facto deputy prime minister[98] and thus bypassing Harman. With Harman's cabinet post of Leader of the House of Commons, Brown allowed her to chair Prime Minister's Questions when he was out of the country. Harman also held the post Minister for Women and Equality.

The Equality Act 2010[99] is an Act of Parliament of the United Kingdom; the primary purpose of the Act is to codify the complicated and numerous array of Acts and Regulations, which formed the basis of anti-discrimination law in Great Britain. This was, primarily, the Equal Pay Act 1970, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, the Race Relations Act 1976, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and three major statutory instruments protecting against discrimination in employment on grounds of religion or belief, sexual orientation and age. It requires equal treatment in access to employment as well as private and public services, regardless of the protected characteristics of sex, age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, race, religion or belief, and sexual orientation. In the case of gender, there are special protections for pregnant women. The Act does not guarantee transsexuals' access to gender-specific services where restrictions are "a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim".[100] Under s.217, with limited exceptions the Act does not apply to Northern Ireland.

In April 2012 after being sexually harassed on London public transport English journalist Laura Bates founded the Everyday Sexism Project, a website which documents everyday examples of sexism experienced by contributors from around the world. The site quickly became successful and a book compilation of submissions from the project was published in 2014.

In 2013, the first oral history archive of the United Kingdom women's liberation movement (titled Sisterhood and After) was launched by the British Library.[101]

Sisters Uncut was founded in 2014 to take direct action in response to cuts to domestic violence services by the UK government, which has included demonstrating against cuts at 7 October London premiere of the 2015 film Suffragette. Sisters Uncut organises intersectionally and see the struggle against racism and borders as intimately connected to the struggle against violence towards women.

In 2016, a British receptionist was dismissed for not wearing high heels and she then started a petition which attracted sufficient support to be considered by the UK Parliament. Outsourcing firm Portico stated that Nicola Thorp "had signed the appearance guidelines" but after Thorp launched her online petition—"Make it illegal for a company to require women to wear high heels at work"—the firm changed their policy. The new guideline states that all female employees "can wear plain flat shoes or plain court shoes as they prefer."[102] The petition gained widespread support from public figures such as Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and MPs Caroline Dinenage, Margot James and Tulip Siddiq.[103][104] Two parliamentary committees in January 2017 decided that Portico had broken the law; the company had already changed its terms of employment.[103][105] The petition gained over 130,000 signatures, sufficient for a debate in the British parliament.[106] This took place on 6 March 2017, when MPs decided the UK government should change the law to prevent the demand being made by employers.[107][105] However, this was rejected by the government in April 2017 as they stated that existing legislation was "adequate".[108]


A suffragette arrested in the street by two police officers in London in 1914
A suffragette arrested in the street by two police officers in London in 1914









The Act applies to elections to:

The Act does not apply to selection of candidates for the Mayor of London elections. Only political parties registered under Part 2 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 are covered by the Act.

The Act was originally scheduled to run until the end of 2015. On 6 March 2008, Minister for Women Harriet Harman announced that the exemption would be extended until 2030 under the Equality Act 2010.[88][89]



See also


  1. ^ a b "BBC - History - Historic Figures: Harriet Taylor (1807 - 1858)".
  2. ^ a b Harriet Taylor Mill (1807 - 1858) Archived 14 April 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ a b "Harriet Taylor Mill, Enfranchisement of Women, 1851".
  4. ^ a b "The 1866 women's suffrage petition | LSE History". 12 June 2016. Retrieved 7 February 2018.
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  1. ^ Compare the 18 July 1877 request for help sent to President Rutherford B. Hayes by West Virginia governor Henry M. Mathews following the outbreak of strikes and riots: "Owing to unlawful combinations and domestic violence now existing at Martinsburg and other points along the line of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, it is impossible with any force at my command to execute the laws of the State."[137]: 24–5 
  1. ^ The first R is short for Regina, denoting a criminal case brought in the name of the Crown; the second R is an anonymised reference to the defendant; [1991] UKHL 12 is a case citation.
  2. ^ The first R is short for Regina, denoting a criminal case brought in the name of the Crown; the second R is an anonymised reference to the defendant; [1991] UKHL 12 is a case citation.

Further reading

Also available as: Bullough, Vera L. (1987), "Prostitution and reform in eighteenth-century England", in Maccubbin, Robert P., ed. (1987). Tis nature's fault: unauthorized sexuality during the Enlightenment. Cambridge New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 61–74. ISBN 9780521347686.